Phantoms of the Junk Opera

The Tiger Lillies are coming to town (and you're gonna get Suicide for Christmas).

The Tiger Lillies are coming to town (and you're gonna get Suicide for Christmas).

by Shaun Brady


Published: Dec 4, 2007

It was a scenario Edward Gorey himself could have written:

Morbid-minded musician gets letter from reclusive author of a similarly

macabre bent, inviting said composer to turn said scribe's unpublished

manuscripts into cheerily bleak stage show. Two days before the two are

set to meet in person for dinner and suitably off-kilter conversation,

the author dies maintaining his mystique to the end.

Of course, if Gorey had written the scenario, it would have involved

lots of puns and rhymes, scheming children and improbably named lords

and ladies. But he surely would have gotten some sort of enjoyment out

of the idea of a collaboration from beyond the grave. The proposed show

did finally happen ? it was called "The Gorey End," naturally, with

Gorey's writing interpreted by Martyn Jacques, leader of the British

grand guignol cabaret band the Tiger Lillies.

One can see where Gorey may have found a kindred spirit in Jacques.

After all, the holiday show the Tiger Lillies will bring to the TLA

this week is festively titled "Suicide for Christmas," and will compile

a gaggle of tunes from the band's near-20-year back catalog that fit

the theme. If there's any doubt left as to where Jacques' songwriting

head is at, the concentration will be on self-extinction rather than

the holiday. "I haven't actually ever written a specifically Christmas

song," Jacques admits, "but I might try."

The Tiger Lillies are best known in the States for their "junk opera"

stage show Shockheaded Peter, which managed to channel their darkly

comic aesthetic into the New York theater world a few years back.

Currently in the works are shows based around the seven deadly sins,

freak shows and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Jacques refers to

their regular concerts as "cheap theatrical experiences," and he lugs

around a suitcase full of props to illustrate the songs.

The frontman himself is enough of a spectacle: clad in a bowler hat and

sporting a heavy layer of ghastly white makeup, manipulating an

accordion while wailing in a high castrato voice about all manner of

unpleasantness. His particular vaudeville of the damned was inspired in

large part by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera, which

Jacques says he listened to fairly obsessively in his early 20s.

"The instrumentation and the songs about prostitutes and starving and

war, and the general cynicism of Brecht's lyrics and Weill's music,

were very inspiring to me," he says. "Jams and rock music had been

extremely commercialized. Electronic music and synthesizers and

electric guitars feeding back and saxophones, all that kind of music

had been done, and I felt like the music of the Threepenny Opera was a

lot more obscure, a lot less used, and a much more interesting area of

inspiration than to use rock or jazz. As an artist I think that

appealed to me as I tried to carve out some kind of original niche."

In 1989, when Jacques pulled together a trio of musicians to put his

concept of Brechtian pop cabaret into action, he assumed that his

vision would propel the Tiger Lillies to fame and fortune.

"The initial concept was that I would make a very original and

unique-sounding style of music," he recalls, "and that would be enough

to guarantee that I would be up there in the hall of fame now with Bob

Dylan and U2. I believed that our uniqueness, the concept of playing

the accordion and singing in a high voice, would hoist me into

superstardom, because I believed that originality was key when

developing music. I've spent the last 20 years in the not-so-slow

realization that I was very na?ve."

([email protected])

The Tiger Lillies play Wed., Dec. 12,

7 p.m., with "Our Hollow Earth" by Geoff Sobelle and Bradford Trojan,

$25, Fillmore at the TLA, 334 South St., 215-336-2000,